Professor Ken Minogue
The Significance of the National Interest
The Iraq Crisis
The Challenge of Legality
Salvation by Law
Olympianism and Reality in International Relations
The Dangers of Olympian Public Opinion
Legal Salvationism and the Corruption of Law
National Interest and the European Union
The Significance of the National Interest
What is in Britain's national interest? As it happens, I don't want an answer to this question. I want to understand what the very question itself means. For over a thousand years the rulers of Britain and of its component nations have pursued the national interest according to the circumstances of the time. Their record is mixed, but far from dishonourable: foreign invasions have been repelled, slavery declared illegal and swept from the seas, freedom defended and preserved, and much else. Thinking about Britain's national interest is the essence of what it means for Britain to be a free and independent actor on the historical stage. The curious thing is that at the beginning of the twenty first century this vital question has become, for many people, something we cannot seriously ask. It is a remarkable development, and it has crept up upon us quietly and in some ways insidiously. "We the British" are becoming dependent on the decisions and the judgements of others - in particular, international and supra-national bodies. My concern is to explain this change in our international situation.
The concept of national interest connects foreign policy with our identity as a people of a certain kind. It is a formal idea. It merely answers the question: What ought we to do? What is the best course of action for the state? But that we actually have a national interest in which we are all involved also tells us what it means to be British, and to be a liberal democracy. We find ourselves involved in a never-ending consideration of what is the right thing for Britain to do. The idea points not to be a conclusion but to an inquiry.
A classic example was the crisis of 1940, when Churchill rallied the country to oppose Nazi Germany, when a strong rational case could be made (and was made, and is still being made) for accommodation with Hitler. The argument, about this and other grand questions, never ends. Most people most of the time no doubt hardly think much about foreign policy, but all will sometimes become involved, as when, for example, back in 1588, beacons across the country were lit to alert the English to the threat of the Armada. To be British is, in part, to have a stake in the national interest, and to have duties about it. One of its basic premises is that foreign invasion must always be resisted, though there have always been some people - some Catholics in 1588, Napoleonists early in the nineteenth century, Nazis in 1940 and Communists at various points in the twentieth century - who have disagreed. Their disagreement doomed them to the margins of British life.
The national interest is thus a shared consciousness constituting British life and feeding into the decisions made by the state. There is no such thing as a Shropshire national interest, because Shropshire is not a state. Scotland and Wales are indeed nations, and for some people there is an appropriate interest on this scale, but these nations are not themselves states. This tells us that if we had an adjective corresponding to "state" we would speak not of the national but of the "statal" interest.
So much for preliminaries: Participating in consciousness of the British national interest is part of what has hitherto been meant by being British. At the beginning of the twenty first century, however, we find ourselves in a quite new situation, and the fate of the concept of national interest gives us a powerful clue to what is going on.
Two things are happening to change us utterly, and both have deep roots in the past. The first is a rejection of the whole idea of a national interest as being the vice of selfishness at the level of statehood. On this view, nation states are outmoded survivals of a violent past, now contaminating a world evolving into an international community with its own law and morality. This evolution promises a better world - more equal, with prosperity better distributed, and capable of transcending the destructiveness of war. Our overriding obligation (many people believe) is to support this evolution rather than clinging to old ways of thought.
The second attack on British national interest is our membership of the European Union, which requires that, particularly in issues of foreign policy, we should no longer think of ourselves as British, but rather as European. The logic of this move is that certain components of national interest - those concerned with our specific national advantage, for example, and those arising from historic association - must in the name of a higher cause be subordinated to whatever may emerge as the new European interest.
Both developments demand the abandonment of national interest.
The Iraq crisis of 2003 has dramatised both elements of this change, and I want to discuss both of them in turn.
The Iraq Crisis
The national interest involves two elements. The first is: who is to make the final decision? The second is: what considerations are relevant to judging national interest?
The answer to the first question may seem obvious: a democratically elected government must decide. Who else, after all, can be accountable for the consequences? Yet recently other claimants to such power have arisen. One of them consists of anti-war protestors on the streets, who have become indignant that in the Iraqi crisis they had not been "listened to", which is a euphemism meaning that they did not get their way. Again, there is also the EU, which seeks a common foreign and defence policy, and deplored the way in which the British took a line independent of the dominant members (France and Germany) and of the Commission itself. And then there are the lawyers. We shall come to them presently. The list is hardly exhaustive, but it will do. And all its members have one crucial thing in common: in no way could they be held accountable. "Not in my name" cried the protesters in the streets, but nobody ever imagined that individuals are responsible for the actions of governments. Their "name", for what it might be worth, was never at issue. Democracy puts the national interest fair and square in the hands of the people, but only as acting through political processes and not by way of marching up and down the streets behind banners. Again, polling data may be useful to governments, but it cannot determine policy.
And in fact the British government did act in terms of the national interest as the Government understood it. The prime minister considered the moral situation, the nature of the threat from the Saddam regime, the economic and military problems, the position of Britain in terms of alliances and national connections and no doubt a good deal else, and he came to the judgement on which the government acted. By contrast with the aspirant usurpers of the power to guide the nation, his judgement emerged from a complex balance of considerations, in which law, and public opinion and any other simple factor could not be decisive.
Was the decision wise? The first point here is to make very clear that there is no such thing as "the decision." Over many months, things changed - the American military build up, the UN discussions, the intelligence reports, the calculations about the likely consequences of various policies, and so on. In the end the British went into Iraq with the Americans. Was that wise? I ask again. We all have our opinions, but only hindsight will be able to shed some light, and then it will never be clear at what point "history", as metaphorically understood, will be confident about its verdict.
There was, however, one central consideration that always arises in situations of this kind, and which caused Blair trouble: how far would governmental policy have popular support? The problem was that many people opposed a forward policy, both in the country at large and in his own party. The results was that Blair thought he could take the people with him only by emphasising one important and dramatic element in the situation and making it seem like the single basic reason for adopting the policy - which it certainly was not. I refer to the threat from Iraq's supposed "weapons of mass destruction". This emphasis has left Blair vulnerable to political attack ever since.
The remarkable thing about this crisis, then, was that the national interest had to be used covertly, even furtively. Blair did what any sensible prime minister had to do, but in explaining himself to the nation, he tried to justify himself by taking a line that could lead only to trouble. Here is an event that reveals to us that a powerful political tendency in the country rejects the very idea of a British national interest and wants to replace that consciousness with something else. The old idea of national interest often operated in terms of formal principles, such as the importance of the Suez Canal to British interests, or that it would be intolerable for a hostile power to control the Channel ports. These principles change, partly responding to the power that is available to sustain them. But one of the new principles being advanced has a moral character unusual in this form of deliberation: namely, that war cannot be used as an instrument of policy at all, or that, if it can be used, it must be approved by the UN. That can mean nothing else than handing our fate over to the interests of other governments whom we cannot in any way hold accountable. Another principle of the new attitude is that the fundamental test must be in terms of international legality, and it is to this principle we shall now turn.
The Challenge of Legality
The intellectual criticism of Britain's Iraq commitment has been that it was, or might have been, "illegal". Was it legal for the coalition to invade Iraq in order to change the Baathist regime? In Britain the Attorney General was apparently asked for his advice and declared the war legitimate. Rumour has subsequently suggested that his advice (like the famous Iraq dossier on the threat to Britain posed by the Iraqis) had been tampered with in order to give a more robust declaration of legality than objective argument could sustain. Lord Alexander of Wheedon has demanded that the advice be published, not concealing his own view that the war was patently illegal. An opinion piece in the Spectator of November 1st 2003 compared the suggested illegality to that of Suez.
The rhetorical tactic is clear enough: to argue that the war was "immoral" would have been inconclusive. Legality is a Trojan horse designed to capture the moral high ground. Moral judgements are inherently contestable. But it is possible to think that "legality" is - in some sense - determinate. What a lawyer tells me is legal must, more or less, be legal, as a matter of fact. What judges decide is certainly treated as if it were a declaration of the right and the true. And if it were the case that the Iraq war was illegal, then the moral case against the war would seem to be irrefutable. It would mean that Blair, and Britain, had indulged in a form of criminality. It is this passionate belief that has often had protesters screaming abuse on the streets. So here we have a brilliant device by which the question of the national interest can be shunted out of the democratic realm and into an arena where a set of legal experts define for us what's what. And anyone who doubts that this is the equivalent of trying target practice with a blunderbuss need only recall that Belgium courts have recently opened an investigation of former President George Bush, his Secretary of Defence Cheney, Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf, for alleged crimes in the first Gulf War. It is not the least significant danger of this kind of legalistic fundamentalism that it most commonly fixes upon accountable democratic politicians as its object, rather than the more brutal dictators of the Third World.
The force of this argument rests upon our admiration for the rule of law. It rests in fact on the following analogy: just as it is illegal for me to assault and rob a fellow citizen, so too it is illegal for one state to launch an assault upon another. Such an argument depends on being clear about what we mean by "law", and especially about that very specific thing we admire as "the rule of law." What does it mean? Let us mention merely the most conspicuous conditions without which there cannot be a "rule of law". There must, in the first place, be a sovereign authority declaring clear rules of law that can be known to all. Secondly, there must be impartial courts that can interpret and apply this law on the basis of recognised rules of interpretation and an attention to precedent. It may well be that such a court must be of the Anglo-Saxon "strict construction" kind rather than the administrative courts common in Continental countries. And thirdly, there must be effective instruments of enforcement of the law, without which violence and intimidation may make the law a dead letter and throw the individual back on his or her own resources for self-defence.
Construing the argument in these terms, we can only conclude that the whole invocation of international law in this area results from a confusion about the idea of the rule of law. No sovereign body declares international law. What is called by that name consists of a great miscellany of useful principles, conventions, treaties, declarations of rights etc. by which states have agreed to regulate the many areas in which they might collide. There is also no independent and impartial court that can satisfactorily judge these matters. It is true that we approve of the Nuremburg Tribunal, and regard it as an event that can be generalised to create a peaceful legal order covering the planet. But we should remember that that Tribunal was a committee of victors applying earlier treaties (such as the Kellog Pact) outlawing war. It was also a piece of legality that worked, and could only have worked, after large armies had previously crushed the power of the defendants to resist. Undefeated governments have the sovereign authority, and often the power, to repudiate treaties signed by earlier governments. As for enforcement of the international legal order, the contradictions take us towards an Alice in Wonderland world. Many countries may have had good reasons for supporting the UN in repelling Iraqi aggression in Kuwait in 1990 - 91, but that response was a rare occasion of an almost unambiguously just war in a world full of violence. The Tutsi and many other peoples have suffered from large scale massacre without anything useful being done about it at all, and the Dalai Lama can complain all he likes about what the Chinese have done for human rights in Tibet, no one is prepared to take on the Chinese about their moral conduct.
Some people have suggested that the United Nations could provide the necessary validation by a vote in the Security Council. This might or might not be desirable, but it would certainly not be a declaration of law, merely a statement of policy by a political body. Many have invoked natural law doctrines about the just war, which should certainly be taken seriously in thinking about these matters, but principles don't apply themselves, and no state is happy to have its policies overruled by an outside body all too conspicuously dominated not by any real sense of justice but by the interests of others. There are also abundant treaties and declarations of rights that have varying degrees of relevance to issues of war and peace. Here then is an arena of affairs positively awash with opinions, mostly of an improving kind, but nothing in sight you could seriously call a law. Not to beat about the bush, we are here dealing with a massive imposture, and it is in unravelling the realities of this imposture that we may find some clues to the emerging international order.
Some people thought that the Iraq invasion would have been legitimated - or at least legalised - if the UN Security Council could have been persuaded to pass another resolution authorising the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Tony Blair certainly strained every muscle to bring this thing about, and persuaded the Americans to go a long way in doing so. Indeed, it is not impossible that Blair's "game" throughout this period was precisely to draw a UN umbrella over the almost inevitable invasion because that turn of events would have created an immensely powerful precedent in future cases. The result would indeed have been to reinforce the idea that any military action taken without UN validation would be a deplorable breach of the conditions of a peaceful order. The UN Security Council is no doubt an important part of international relations, but it is not a judicial body. Nor can it possibly be regarded as democracy in action in the international sphere.
In any case, in politics, and especially in international politics, the classic advice is not, as Burke observed when discussing the crisis with American colonists, "what a lawyer tells me I might do". It is, rather, salus populi suprema lex. There are times when laws may and perhaps must be overridden, and the only people who have a legitimate right to do this are the elected and responsible governments in liberal democracies. In other kinds of state, rulers will, if the inclination strikes them, override absolutely anything that stands in their way, and that is an important fact about the world we live in. Even in our law-governed West, however, governments must have the right to decide on issues of peace or war. The German attack on Poland in 1939, for example, was very far from being a distinct and unmistakeable threat to British security. One of the grounds of Britain going to war with Germany in 1914 was, indeed, the violation of the 1839 Treaty guaranteeing Belgium's security, but that alone would hardly have been worth the immense costs of that war. Obviously vastly greater questions were in play. In any serious treatment of the Iraq issue, then, we might well argue that the British government's decision to join the Coalition was morally right, or wrong; or that it was prudent, or imprudent. What is very odd, however, is to argue that it was illegal, as if this clinched the matter. It only makes sense if we look into the background ideas, and these consist in a doctrine we may call "legal Salvationism".
Salvation by Law
Legal Salvationism - namely, the doctrine that bringing law to bear on every aspect of human life is the path to a better world - has been a waxing doctrine for a century or more. It underpinned the hopes vested in both the League of Nations and the UN. The hope was that a web of treaties guaranteeing rights and limiting the justifications for conflict would ultimately bring peace and the benefits of rational morality (equal rights for women, limitation of the power of states, outlawing of torture etc.) to the whole world. Our security in the prosperous West clearly rests upon the rule of law, and it seemed obvious that exporting this highly desirable feature of Western life to the international sphere would be the next move in the immemorial liberal ambition to create a better world. But who would bring this happy outcome to fruition? It happened that the right side won the First World War, and legal salvationism on the march created the League of Nations, a device that failed largely because the big stick that was to enforce the peace - namely, collective security - failed the test of reality. Rogues defied it with impunity. In the Second World War, again, the right side won - at least if we make an exception for the Soviet Union, so that power and authority once more came together, up to a point, in the project of the United Nations. The structure of the UN mirrored that of the victors, more or less, and it could hardly be complained that these victors were narrow in their coverage. China and France were both accorded permanent seats on the Security Council, less as a reflection of their power than of the aspirations of that period. A lot of fair-mindedness went into constructing the new international order. Even so, the defining instruments that it could generate had to be composed of "motherhood" aspirations, many of them conspicuously ignored by some states (democracy, prohibition of torture etc.), and conspicuously incapable of being fulfilled by many others (annual holidays with pay and other social and economic rights).
Nevertheless, a great deal of internationality flowed from this settlement of the Nazi defeat. Vague aspirations in legal form are very far from impotent, at least in the long run. The educated middle classes of liberal democracies are sensitive to the test of consistency in moral policy, and will support whatever can present itself as virtue. The power of such abstract instruments also comes from the advantage of well funded, if not infrequently corrupt, bureaucracies, with close links to the academic and intellectual elites of their countries. And I say "corrupt" partly because Unesco, WHO, and the rest were very lavishly resourced - no question arose of a monastic or ascetic idealism being required of those who worked for the betterment of mankind - and partly because their personnel had to be recruited much less on merit than on a distributional principle by which each region must have its share of the spoils. Further, the ideal universality of these projects was often subordinated to partial and national interests. Various countries became so enraged at UNESCO, for example, that they withdrew for many years. And the United States, the principal source of funds, was often in arrears because it disapproved of what was being done.
The position of the United States is central, both as providing much of the cash, and as being the only real possessor of a "big stick" that might be used to enforce the international interest in keeping the peace. This has certainly been the position more or less since 1989 when the Soviet Union ceased to be a countervailing power balancing America, and the Cold War was put into commission. Since then, a grand comedy has been played out at the UN, in which other countries have sought to get their hands on the use of American power by insisting that it must only be used in international affairs according to the wishes of the Security Council, and complaining bitterly of unilateralism when they failed. The French and the Russians in the Iraq crisis were virtuoso exponents of this drive to convert voting power at the UN into actual control over how the United States used its military power.
Legal Salvationism, then, is best described as a form of utopianism whose point is to bring the whole world into a single legal order. It inherits other versions of worldly perfection such as socialism, and hence it looks forward to the spread of an equal prosperity and human rights throughout the world, but its more immediate concern is to counter particularism in all its forms. In other words, it is a universalistic doctrine, like communism and anarchism, rather than a particularistic one, such as fascism, or Nazism. It has generated many current clichés of current public discussion, such as that the day of the national state is finished: we are now all interdependent, and this is why the fundamental framework of order must be at the world level. Legal salvationalism coheres well with ecological aspirations to save the planet from degradation. It is in many ways a noble vision, pitting law and morality against force and violence, and it is certainly something to be reckoned with in the twenty first century. But like all forms of idealism, it must also be understood in more realistic terms.
Olympianism and Reality in International Relations
Doctrines are composed of analysis and ideals, but their political force depends on the people who work to advance their influence. Legal Salvationism is a moral and legal movement that finds support among the educated of Western countries. Many lawyers certainly espouse it, and so, too, do politicians in those moods when they take the opportunity to sign historic international declarations of high principle. For clergymen, Legal Salvationism can almost be confused with a modern application of the Christian gospel. Support in depth, however, comes from the increasing numbers of the academically educated, especially if they work in universities or in the public service. Indeed, universities have now become training schools in the morality of secular internationalism. One may discern a certain split within Western states between the professions, public servants, diplomats, lawyers, administrators, academics and such people on the one hand, and those who work in commerce, finance or on the land on the other. In one sense, this is a division between the ideas and the interests, Legal Salvationism being pre-eminently to be found among those inspired by a grand idea. Like champagne socialists, their ideological enthusiasms have been disconnected from what in other moods might seem to be their interests. Indeed, rejecting one's own interests is (on this view) the best possible evidence of one's moral integrity. I have elsewhere described these people as "Olympians."
By "Olympians" I mean educated people who take a self-consciously god-like stance about the passions of the mass of mankind. They stand for universal rationality against such prejudices as racism, nationalism, sexism and other forms of particularist oppression. Often having friends of many races and colours themselves, they find it difficult to understood why Muslims and Hindus, Fijians and Indians, Hutu and Tutsi, Israeli and Palestinian etc. cannot live happily together side by side in one state. Some of the real optimists among them support multiculturalism as a kind of training programme for teaching peoples the arts of communal harmony. One may easily sympathise with Olympian puzzlement about inter-communal and inter-religious strife, but it is not so easy to go along with the idea that nothing is at stake here but blind prejudice in need of a bit of broadening education. Not having had a religion of his, and especially her, own, the Olympian finds it hard to think of other people taking such beliefs seriously. It is this cast of mind which generates "peace processes" as a solution to civil strife. The assumption is that violence merely causes further trouble, and that every problem can be negotiated if we only get everyone around a table. Jaw-jaw may well be better than war-war, but as a simple matter of fact, many problems are only solved by power. As the French say: Ce n'est que le provisoire qui dure.
A moral response to the world is the first thing that comes into the heads of most people when asked abstract political questions. States are like individuals, and violence is wrong. This is what makes Olympianism not merely an elite attitude but often a popular one. Taking a high moral line on some public issue is generally a costless pleasure. In the normal course of events, the consequences won't directly affect them, though they can in the long run be very nasty indeed. The facile mapping of individual morality onto the arena of international relations immediately generates the conclusion that breaching supposed international law is a form of criminality, and provokes an appropriate indignation. If the presumed criminal is one's own government, this merely demonstrates how rationally one has triumphed over the prejudices of patriotism.
The Dangers of Olympian Public Opinion
The basic fact about British public opinion at the beginning of the twenty first century is that it is, so far as foreign policy is concerned, predominantly Olympian. This is why Blair was forced into justifying the Iraq war in terms of the threat from horrific weapons. Olympianism alone can get activists out on the streets. Most politically active citizens if asked to make a judgement about international affairs will discard any reference to the British national interest and make a universal moral judgement in which, often, any sacrifice of what might be thought British interests will be not merely accepted but often seen as an additional proof of the moral elevation of the position. It is, vox populi will declare, wrong to go to war (unless the United Nations asks us). Opinion has commonly now assimilated issues of asylum seeking to the vocabulary of rights, which means that rights attach to all human beings rather than to the citizens of the country who must pay the costs. The evolution of thinking in terms of rights from civil and political rights towards economic and social has fiscal implications that play no part in Olympian thinking. It is a striking fact that when the classical Athenians introduced a small payment for citizens taking part in the Assembly, they forthwith tightened the conditions for according citizenship to the aliens in their midst. No such connection is made in modern welfare states, perhaps because our prosperity makes it seem basically unnecessary. There are, however, citizens who do feel a measurable resentment about this kind of insouciant largesse on the part of the state. It is an issue that does in fact make politicians (most of whom are instinctively Olympian) nervous, and has led to the rise of xenophobic resentment in many European countries.
In any case, Olympians are almost entirely sympathetic to multiculturalism, and the effect of rising numbers of people from different cultures in European countries is inevitably to cripple the political expression of a homogeneous national interest. The fact can be seen most evidently in its negative form: Muslim voters in a number of constituencies in Britain were almost entirely against the toppling of the Baathist regime in Iraq, and the members of parliament for those constituencies were, therefore, extremely cautious on the line they took. If significant numbers of immigrants from around the world establish themselves in Britain, and if the multicultural industry succeeds in making them self-conscious pursuers of communal rights, then, except in the most extreme circumstances, British public opinion will have been successfully neutered. That will not be good for Britain, and I think that history shows that it will not be good for the world.
Legal Salvationism and the Corruption of Law
The remarkable thing about the spread of Legal Salvationism as a dominant moral doctrine is that it coincides with a notable corruption of the legal spirit itself. To explain this point requires that we distinguish between two roles that law plays in European states. The basic role is that of providing a framework of general rules, conformity to which allows individuals and groups to pursue their own interests without self-defeating collisions with others. This is what we revere as "the rule of law" and it requires a delicate balance between freedom and order. In such a world, commerce can thrive and subjects of the sovereign are enabled to enter into contracts, make wills and perform other acts with confidence. It is this function of law which is theorised in most classical liberal theories of law.
States, however, are not merely abstract legal structures, but also cultures, economies and societies, and the legal framework is strikingly marked by the character of these other aspects of European life. A dominant religion has always left its mark, often according legal privileges to the established church and enforcing the currently orthodox morality about such issues as drinking alcohol, incest, bigamy, homosexuality, pornography etc. A liberal framework theory of the state corresponds to most but not all of the realities of modern life, and in wartime particularly many of the freedoms we cherish have been severely constrained. And where universal welfare has become a central object of public policy, the government takes over the management of an ever-larger quantity of the national wealth which it spends for purposes going far wider than merely sustaining defence and freedom. Here then is a use of law less as providing a framework for a population of self-reliant individuals with their own lives to lead than as imposing a scheme of management on a population conceived as subject to some overriding end.
No version of the European state has entirely lacked the second kind of legal establishment, not even the so-called "night watchman" state of the early nineteenth century. At the other extreme, totalitarian states in the twentieth century often approached the condition of vast households in which all the resources of the country were entirely managed by the government. A framework of law and freedom was almost entirely lacking. Further, the dominant current idea of a state is of an association of individuals each of whom is unconditionally guaranteed a basic minimum of resources. Such a conception cannot but impose a managerial style of government upon modern states. In Europe it is sometimes called a "social market" state.
The vital point is to recognise that abstract theories of liberalism or rights will be seriously modified by the changes in economic circumstances that each generation experiences. Wealth can make easy things that poverty previously forbade, or at made very difficult. Less prudence is needed in everyday life. A relatively simple framework of law can respond to circumstances by attending cautiously to precedent.
A twentieth century legal system, however, will be forever extending its range and cannot but create a dense network of rules. The business of judges must, therefore, become focussed less on mere precedent than to keeping this ever more complex network of rules as anomaly-free as possible. The problem is that this situation also invites judges to create a system of rights in some degree out of their own sense of what is right. The secret of judicial power in past times was the clear recognition lawyers had that theirs was a limited, formal realm. Over-impressed by the idea that justice is the fountain of law, today's judges often come to think that it can be found in their own moral intuitions, for which an ever more luxuriant growth of rules and conventions renders the outcome of legal disputes ever more indeterminate. This is the thing called "judicial activism", now spreading so fast that the courts of Anglo-Saxon countries now regard each other's judgements as a supermarket from which to pluck the principle which most accords with their current inclinations.
On might imagine that the international sphere would be free from this kind of managerial universalism, for although liberal states might plausibly be thought suitable playthings for the moral intuitions of judges, the world is so culturally heterogeneous that no such scheme would be possible on a world scale. But this doubt would fail to do justice to the immense fertility of the idea of rights and the limitless ambitions of statesmen and bureaucrats. The world has ever been characterised by poverty, oppression, empire, the caprice of power, and many other evils. International law in this modern sense is the successor of the many forms of moral imperialism found in European empires, and of the reforming aspirations of statesmen such as Woodrow Wilson. And in the idea of rights, these aspirations have found the ideal tool for the steady spread of enlightened practices throughout the world. It is no doubt an admirable ambition to make everybody basically the same as ourselves, but it is not the business of judges and bureaucrats, and there is no doubt that this ambition is a great addition to the world's stock of folly.
Legal Salvationism has thus come to flourish at just the time when the legal tradition has been corrupted by the ambition to rule the world. Like Aesop's bird, who dropped its worm into a pool because it saw its own reflection in a pool and wanted two worms rather than one, lawyers have lost their saving sense of limitation. They have created a world of universal rights and they have no machinery that would allow them to repeal those rights. Complexity demands flexibility, and rights are notoriously inflexible legal instruments. They have so far been able to advance this power because politicians have been so widely mistrusted. Lawyers, it seemed, were the disinterested agents of justice. They were the bulwark of our freedom. That is no longer the case. As we all know, the admiration for lawyers in the Western world is declining even faster than that for politicians.
National Interest and the European Union
The conflict between pursuit of the national interest on the one hand and Olympianism on the other can seem to be reconciled by taking the line that the right thing is always in the long term interest of the national state. Sometimes, of course, this is true and no conflict arises. In one particular area, however, the conflict is direct and stark. Olympianism is unyieldingly hostile to alliances. In the politico-moral world of the Olympian, all states are equal except as they misbehave. Israel features, for example, not as an ally but as a state using what is taken to be excessive and indiscriminate force against a weaker opponent. Just as anti-racism forbids not only prejudice against but also preference for any other peoples, so preference for one state over another is taken to be a distortion of judgement. A lifetime's history of alliance with the liberal democratic United States could not save President Bush on his 2003 state visit to Britain from encountering protestors much more hostile to him than they had ever been to enemies of Britain. In the real world, some states are notably predatory at various stages in their history. They bid violently for land, or influence, or the ascendancy of a doctrine, or a new order of things or a passion to unite with those of the same kind, and in the process other states are attacked or destroyed. War and the threat of war have ever been endemic in European history, and far from absent elsewhere. It is difficult being Poland neighboured by Germany and Russia, or Vietnam close to China, or France in the last century or so in its relations with Germany. The NATO alliance was essential to keeping the peace in Europe in the second half of the twentieth century, and in 1940 Britain was in sore need of friends. This means that in judging the national interest, one important consideration might well be less the direct issue posed than the question of keeping an alliance in good repair. This was no doubt part of the Blair calculation in 2003, and certainly a dominant issue in John Howard's decision to take Australia into the anti-Saddam Hussein Coalition. It was a judgement sneered at in the Australian press as Howard's desire to win "frequent fighter points", but journalists are free to sneer because they are not responsible for the fate of nations.
Britain's adhesion to the European Union certainly weakens our sense of national interest because it often cuts our longstanding friendships. For here in the EU we find a variety of countries that have in the course of long histories found alliances and cultural affinities appropriate to the circumstances of a past time. The French look south to their interests in Africa, the Spaniards across the Atlantic to the Hispanic new world, the Greeks to Cyprus and their tension with the Turks, and so on. The British looked to the open sea, to the Commonwealth and to the American connection, to none of which were other members of the EU notably sympathetic. Much of this inescapable heterogeneity of interest was suppressed after 1945 because Soviet Communism cast other threats into the shade. But those divergences have now resurfaced, and in the case of Iraq in 2003, they were dramatic indeed. Yet here is an association of states whose explicit aim is to generate a united foreign and security policy.
British policy diverged very dramatically, indeed, from the inclinations of the French and the Germans, and the issue was over the American alliance. One ground of dispute was historic tradition; another was the fact that a major aim of French foreign policy has been to develop the EU into a world power counterbalancing the United States. Britain thus faces two obvious questions among others: does it want to join in a project contrary to its inclinations, its historical development, and its established common practices in areas of intelligence and administration? And secondly, is it prepared to subordinate its energies and resources to international projects running seriously counter to Britain's historical affiliations? There is in other words a clear fork in the road for Britain: will it abandon one of the central planks of its security in order to fall into line with a European policy it tends to reject? Or will it defy the project for a common foreign and defence policy in pursuance of what it has hitherto considered its national interest?
The question of its energies and resources is a central one. In discussions for example between the Australian and British governments in 2003 at the time of the inauguration of the Australian war memorial in London, the Australians were keen to promote military cooperation, but expressed doubts about whether they should be talking to London, or Brussels. No doubt it is true that, as de Gaulle and many others have observed, great powers have no friends - only interests. On the other hand, interests cannot be entirely disengaged from the cultural affiliations that sustain a country's confidence that it can find support abroad. Alliances with a bit of cultural stiffening look more robust than those constructed out of mere opportunism. There has indeed been peace in Europe for the last half century, but there has also, in the longer term, been a history of antagonism and war. Should a mere current aspiration, and one contested by a large part of the British population, override the inclinations whose solidity is a matter of historical record?
The reality of the British national interest, then, is that it is under threat from two sides. Within Britain, the currency of Olympian opinion both in its populist and its elite forms judges international issues not with the multi-dimensionality of the concept of the national interest, but in the simplistic terms of individual morality, and indeed of a kind of morality - war bad, peace always good - that previously, if we may put the matter brutally - made the 1930s "a low, dishonest decade". Whether on Iraq Blair got it right or wrong, there is no doubt that he was the right man in the right institution looking at the question in the right way. Of none of the other competitors to take over the national interest could such a thing be said.
The national interest is thus under attack by moralism from below and internationalism from above, and both our identity and our security as a historic nation are under threat from both directions. The promise is an end to war, the likely consequence a managed stagnation that will fail even in securing peace. (Have the Olympians never heard tell of civil war?) The European Union in which power has moved from democratically elected states into the hands of a bureaucracy is a triumphant expression of the Olympian spirit. And here the danger is not merely, as with our home grown addiction to Legal Salvationism, that our national interest will be ignored, but rather that it may be actively subverted by Continental interests keen to turn our friends into enemies.
Does this matter? Bavaria in the past became absorbed in Germany, Castile into Spain and Scotland into Great Britain. National interest is a form of shared consciousness and it changes over time. But there is a continuity in British life which links the dangers and triumphs of foreign threat into a profound sense of what we feel ourselves to be. 1066, 1588, 1806, 1940 are merely the high points in the drama of Britishness. Identity is memory, and in losing the national interest, we lose both identity and a grasp on what history has revealed as the dominant realities of our international situation. Over a thousand years, the idea of the national interest has been central to our freedom as an influential and honourable actor on the international stage. Are we now so sure that the follies of European aggression have forever been laid to rest, and that we no longer need the power to stand on our own feet and to manage our own resources? National consciousness is itself a moral practice. It is the substance of which we are in part composed, and the humanitarian Olympianism that seeks to replace it with a kind of abstract egalitarianism commits its believers to nothing more demanding than the latest intellectual fashion, but it bids fair to destroy us as an independent voice in the world. We are moving into a future in which our national consciousness is a fugitive to be hunted down by reformers who want to fit us to a merely aspirational new order. Like the Cheshire Cat, we are disappearing, and soon there'll be nothing left but the smile.